By Erin Fincher
Sometimes, modern life can feel incompatible with a healthy lifestyle. Each morning we pick up our extra-large, whole-milk mocha with whip—knowing we can’t make it through the morning without one. We skip breakfast, head to the vending machine, and then pick up a large pizza for dinner. We spend eight hours a day (usually more) hunched over computers or lab benches. We drive frantically like we’re the only ones on the road, because we always have somewhere to be. Rarely do we take the time (or have the time) to examine these everyday unhealthy habits and think about how they affect the population at large. This month’s NICHD Exchange meeting, entitled “Healthy Lifestyles: Eat Well, Exercise Well, Drive Well, Be Well” gave us that chance, as experts gathered to discuss a host of unhealthy habits, along with the best methods of prevention and treatment.
A growing portion of the US population is either overweight or obese; it’s a complex problem with no single, clear solution. Dr. Gilman Grave began February’s meeting with a discussion on the current state of obesity in the US, as well as the many factors that contribute to our ever-growing waistlines. In search of the cause of our obesity problem, scientists have examined everything from increasing portion sizes to viral infections. To date, researchers have identified 108 drivers of obesity, forming a dangerous, tangled web of correlated relationships. This may be why single-focus solutions—such as higher taxes on soft drinks—seem to have little impact on large-scale obesity rates.
Although obesity rates are high within the population, it doesn’t mean that any one individual is helpless against this battle of the bulge. Dr. Joan Han provided us with a summary of what approaches have been scientifically proven to help patients lose weight and become healthier. Surprisingly, much of what is generally accepted as common weight loss knowledge is not scientifically substantiated. Suggestions like eating more fruits and vegetables and cutting out highly processed foods are supported by plenty of anecdotal evidence, but there is ultimately little scientific research to back them up. Many people try to cut a certain type of food from their diet—such as carbohydrates or fats—but research shows that weight loss is simply a matter of calories-in versus calories-out.
Another conclusion that may come as a surprise to some is that diet, not exercise, is the key to substantial weight loss. However, this shouldn’t be a deterrent to keep you from exercising. Exercise is still highly beneficial, and has been proven to help people who have lost weight successfully keep the pounds off.
Ultimately, prevention is far more effective than treatment when it comes to obesity. That’s why obesity rates in children should be of particular concern, especially within the NICHD community. In 1980, obesity rates for children six to 11 years old and adolescents 12 to 19 years old were seven percent and five percent, respectively. In 2012, these numbers skyrocketed to 18 percent for children and 21 percent for adolescents. Over one-third of children are currently overweight or obese. But there is hope. A recent study showed that obesity in children aged two to five has decreased by 43 percent over the past decade.
In many populations, however, childhood obesity is still a growing problem. Minority and low-income children, as well as children with disabilities, are particularly vulnerable to becoming overweight or obese. Dr. Tina Urv and Dr. Layla Esposito gave a joint talk on the difficulties of managing obesity in children with mobility, intellectual, and developmental disabilities. “This is a whole group of kids who are falling through the gaps,” Dr. Urv reminded us. For children who are currently overweight or obese, Drs. Han, Urv, and Esposito all emphasized the same major points: successful interventions are those that are custom-tailored and involve entire families, rather than focusing solely on the child.
When we think about “being healthy,” we tend to focus largely on things like food, weight, and exercise. Dr. Bruce Simons-Morton reminded us that behavioral health is an often overlooked part of good health. Managing risky behavior keeps us safe and mitigates poor choices that have possible disastrous consequences. Dr. Simons-Morton studies adolescent health behavior, specifically teen driving patterns. He provided us with some interesting strategies that increase teen driving safety, the most effective of which is getting parents involved in their teen’s driving habits.
The take-home messages from this Exchange meeting were that health has many facets and the strategies used to improve patient health need to be individually tailored. Parents can have a huge impact on their children’s health by working to improve the health of their entire family (themselves included). By instilling healthy habits in childhood and adolescence, we can create a healthier adult population.